Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
Opinions differ about who originally said the above maxim. Many think it was Abraham Lincoln, and there’s a slightly different version attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, I think he (or she) would throw his hands up in despair if he saw what’s happening in social media these days. And in this instance, I’m speaking particularly of grammar.
Here’s the thing: a properly spelled and punctuated status update could very well contain nothing but idiocy; however, it appears better informed than a good argument that expresses itself poorly with terrible grammar. The ones that really drive me nuts are the school teachers who post things with really bad (and obvious) spelling errors. And you’re teaching our kids? I think. No wonder everyone complains about American education.
Not only do I take speaking and writing properly as a personal responsibility, but I also consider a thing of pride. And pride goeth before a fall; yes, I know. But I don’t want to be a poor representative of my education or my upbringing. English is my first language; it’s my job to know it.
Maybe I’m taking this a little too seriously. It could be that spelling comes to me naturally or that I have a gift with tongues. I fondly remember our spelling bee games in elementary school, which not only weeded out the bad spellers but prepared those of us who were going on to the real thing. In the fifth grade, the word that stumped me was “souvenir,” and although I spelled it wrong (I think I put an “i” instead of the “e”), I asked for the correct spelling and have known it ever since.
I wonder, though, about the other kids that didn’t make it. When they misspelled whichever words got them out, were they relieved that they didn’t have to do it anymore? Did they shrug it off and never give it another thought? Or did they do what I did and learn the proper spelling?
I know there is probably a certain percent of the population who don’t care one bit but still spell correctly because they’ve unconsciously absorbed and retained the information. So where does that leave the bad spellers who really want to get the words right but can’t ever seem to quite make it? I think that this minority is shrinking and being taken over by the shruggers, the people who think that it doesn’t much matter anyway.
Those of us who call ourselves writers should know better. More than that, we should do better. Especially considering the ease with which our words make it into one form of media or another, we should set ourselves apart by making our prose as clean and intelligible as possible.
I know of some famous authors who, without the aid of excellent editors, could never spell their way out of a paper bag. And I suppose I can believe that a bestselling author does not a good speller make. After all, there was a time before writing, when traditions were kept orally, through storytelling. There must have been countless storytellers in our world’s history who never needed to know teem and team are spelled differently.
On the other hand, this should not be a cop out. We do have a system of writing now, proper sentence structures and various forms of punctuation that have developed over the centuries as it became more common for people to read, and reading material became more accessible.
From road signs to advertisements, from books to newspapers, Internet columns to menus to instruction manuals. . . and the plethora of other ways we use words to get meanings across to others, I’m here to say it does matter. And no, I’m not going to pass by a restaurant for advertising “from scratch pizza’s” (I’ll pass by for dietary reasons instead), but I’ll be embarrassed for the person that created the menus. . . and even more embarrassed for the majority of the patrons who simply don’t notice. But as someone who reads cover letters on an almost daily basis, I always mentally move a candidate down a notch when he says he hopes his writing exceeds expectations, and the first sentence greets me with a big ol’ typo.
What in the world is the solution? Education is a big part. Caring is another, and I’m not quite sure how to make people care. In a culture where idiocy is applauded and can make you famous (just visit YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean), it’s a tough fight.
But while I’m preaching and feeling pessimistic, there is someone out there who put a little bit of a humorous spin on the whole “Grammar Nazi” thing. So check it out Why It’s Hard Being a Grammar Nazi, have a laugh, and then use a dictionary the next time you’re even the tiniest bit unsure about how to spell the plural of “hero.”